MIAMI — It seems like the Heat’s season has reached a tipping point.
After Sunday’s blowout home loss to the Pacers, coach Erik Spoelstra said: “We will find a solution one way or another to get this team playing Miami Heat basketball.”
Well, here come the scorching hot Celtics.
After a two-day break, the Heat (7-9) will look to turn things around and change the narrative when they face the Celtics on Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena. Boston enters on a 16-game winning streak and with the NBA’s best record at 16-2.
The Celtics have already defeated the Heat once during their winning streak, 96-90 in Miami on Oct. 28.
“You know nothing really surprises me,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Boston. “They’re playing exceptional basketball. And that’s the most noteworthy thing right now, really defending at a high level. Really, it’s hard not to notice how well Kyrie Irving and [Al] Horford and Jaylen Brown are playing. But really, what’s impressive is how consistent they’ve defended all year long.”
Even with All-Star forward Gordon Hayward likely out for the season after suffering a gruesome leg injury in Boston’s season-opening loss to Cleveland, the Celtics are just three games shy of tying the longest winning streak in franchise history set during the 2008-09 season.
As Spoelstra noted, defense is a big reason for Boston’s success. The Celtics entered Tuesday with the league’s top defensive rating, allowing 95.8 points per 100 possessions, and the second-best opponent field-goal percentage at 42.9 percent.
This elite defense has allowed Boston to get away with a mediocre offense. The Celtics rank 20th of 30 teams in offensive efficiency.
This formula — winning with defense — is one the Heat want to use. But Miami hasn’t been consistent on that end of the court this season, as it ranks 14th in defensive efficiency.
“We have all the pieces,” guard Dion Waiters said when asked if Boston’s success is a reminder of what elite defense can do. “It’s about us putting it together for 48 minutes. In our mind, it’s making that what we want to be. That’s what it comes down to. All that, it’s early and all them type of things, you can’t keep making excuses, man. If we want to be a top-five defense like we were last year, it starts now. It starts with me. I got to do a better job, also.”
Kyrie Irving is another driving force behind Boston’s impressive start. Irving, who was acquired from the Cavaliers in a August trade, is in the middle of an MVP-caliber season with averages of 22.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game.
“I just think what he did, I respect that as a man,” Waiters said of Irving’s decision to request a trade from the Cavaliers. “Just wanting to take on more, just that leadership. I respect it. I respect the move. I mean he won [a championship] already and he just feels as though as a player he had more to give to the game.”
Irving is fifth in the league in fourth-quarter scoring at 7.0 points per game. That’s one of the reasons Boston has earned eight comeback wins this season, with five of the comebacks coming after the Celtics trailed by double digits.
“He’s going right into his prime,” Spolstra said of Irving. “He’s got all the experiences you need — pain, losing teams, championships teams, he’s a former No. 1 pick — and he’s just on top of everything right now, heading into his prime. And it’s a great fit for him, his skill set and for them.”
While Wednesday’s game comes against one of the league’s top teams, it’s one the Heat really can’t afford to let slip away. It marks Miami’s final home game before it embarks on a four-game trip that begins Friday against the Timberwolves.
“We’re just going to have to be locked in,” Heat forward Justise Winslow said of Wednesday’s game against Boston. “We’re not going to be able to afford any mental breakdowns, any two minute, three minute lapses. We’ve got to be mentally strong. Maybe [slip] on one possession, but after that, we’ve got to get back connected and locked into what we’re trying to do defensively, play to our strengths.”